The days were getting warmer, but the evenings were still cold in Ramallah. Even in his leather jacket, Daoud shivered. The nearer he got to the looming Wall with its high watchtowers, the colder he felt. He zipped the jacket up to his neck.
He hung back for a while, watching people come and go. To his left, people moved easily, returning from Jerusalem to Ramallah without interference. At this hour, people poured out of taxis and teemed through the open gate, stopping to shop at the makeshift roadside stands where you could buy everything from warm bread to bathmats. Old Palestinian cars zoomed through, dust mingling with exhaust. The drivers leaned on the horns when passersby were slow to move aside or when traffic snarled in the narrow intersections. Just beyond, he could see the minarets of Qalandia refugee camp, a quarter mile away, but off-limits to Palestinians without Jerusalem ID.
To his right, cars stretched as far back as he could see, two abreast, with more arriving all the time. They too honked, but only to blow off steam. The new arrivals knew there was nothing the other drivers could do to speed up the checkpoint. He watched as a VW Rabbit with half its fender torn off veered around an orange taxi piled high with luggage on top. The taxi driver stubbornly refused to pull back and let the VW in.
Even this chaotic assembly looked orderly, compared to the crush of bodies pressing toward the turnstile where the pedestrians went through—if they were lucky. Those like him, who had no permit for Jerusalem, could wait for hours only to be turned back, or worse. It was six o’clock and still light out. Next week, the time would change, and then it would be light even later. The longer days were a blessing for the farmers and for people who had a long way to travel to and from work. It was not so good for him, though. Under cover of darkness, he could often still find a way around the checkpoint—a hole in the fence, a place where the Wall was not quite finished, or where the sections had been wedged ever so slightly apart. Six months ago, even in broad daylight, he could always find a way through to Jerusalem. But in the last months, the Israelis had sealed up the Wall around al-Ram and Qalandia, and, now, increasingly, the only ways through were the official ones, which were closed to him.
The two turnstiles, each as heavily fortified as a medieval castle, loomed in front of him like a dare. The old, handwritten signs had recently been replaced with brown, metal placards proclaiming the right line for foreigners and people with blue Jerusalem IDs, the left for Palestinians with green West Bank ID cards.
Daoud would not get through either turnstile legally. He edged closer to the crowd, looking for a young mother he could perhaps befriend. Men and women went through separately, but, if a woman had several small children, and he offered to carry a couple of them through, she might be grateful enough to protest that he was her husband, that one of the babies was sick and they needed to get to a hospital quickly quickly, the soldiers would be impressed with his love for his children and wave him through.
No good candidates for that ruse presented themselves tonight. He looked up at the ugly, concrete Wall looming on both sides. It seemed to grow higher and thicker every time he came, its towers rising ever more menacingly. Not for the first time, he imagined coming here with some sticks of dynamite and lighting the fuses, watching the stone crumble. It would not make any difference. They would build it again the next day, twice as high and twice as deep. But he would not care, because he would be dead and, before he died, he would have known what it was to be free for just one minute.
He shoved the fantasy aside. Bombs and such were not for him. He had considered it, of course, while he was in high school. All the boys in his circle had. A few of them had actually joined the militant resistance, picked up guns, blown themselves up, taking an Israeli settler or soldier or two with them. One of his best friends was in prison now; he had meant to be a bomber, but had been caught on the way to detonate his belt. Probably Daoud would never see him again. He put his friend out of his mind. He could not dwell on such miseries when he was on his way to entertain, to make the audience love him, and be made love to in turn.
He abandoned the turnstiles and instead strode up the line of cars. In between the turnstiles, two soldiers hunkered back to back in a metal booth piled high with sandbags. Each balanced a long rifle on one shoulder, aiming it at the window of the first driver in line, ready to shatter both the window and the driver’s head if the car moved prematurely. Daoud leaned against a light post and smoked a cigarette. Four soldiers worked the cars in teams of two. One of the teams was methodical, doing everything just the same with each car, taking this out, then that, asking the same questions of each person. The other team obviously enjoyed mixing it up. They would sometimes look in the trunk, sometimes tell everyone to get out, now take the driver’s keys, turn the radio to a Hebrew station and turn it up loud. He needed to avoid those two like rotten meat.
He examined the others, the quiet ones. One was tall and the other short. The tall one had sunken cheeks and a bushy beard; the shorter one was muscular and clean-shaven. His cocoa-colored face was impassive, and he spoke to the people in broken Arabic, using the respectful terms haj and haji for older people.
When the musc man stretched between searching cars, Daoud cleared his throat. The man looked up at him.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“To go to Jerusalem. To Adloyada.”
“Adloyada?” Daoud was sure the soldier knew what Adloyada was. He just wanted to play naïve.
“I have to get there soon. I’m JLo Day-Glo.”
A flicker of a smile passed over the young man’s lips, but, as quickly, it was gone.
“Do you have a permit?”
“Would I be standing here if I did?”
“Sorry, it’s not possible.”
“Perhaps we can go there together.”
“I’m on duty.”
“Gadi,” called the taller soldier. “Yalla.”
Daoud grimaced. He hated that the Israelis had appropriated the Arabic “let’s go” into their stupid language. Gadi, as his partner had called him, might have noticed Daoud’s expression or maybe he was just annoyed by Daoud’s familiarity. He grabbed Daoud roughly by the arm.
“Come over here,” he snarled.
Daoud felt panic welling up inside him. What had he done? He was flirting, sure, but if the guy wasn’t interested, he could pretend he didn’t understand. Was he a closet case, a homophobe, or both?
“Let me go,” he hissed. “I didn’t mean anything. Forget it, I’m leaving.”
Gadi ignored him, twisting Daoud’s wrist so that he yelped. He frog marched him away from the cars to a green metal hut, shoved him inside, and closed the door. The smell of urine and rancid beer assaulted his nose. His stomach churned, and he choked back a little vomit. It was pitch dark, and something squished under his foot. He hoped it was chewing gum or the remains of a chucked-out sandwich. He couldn’t breathe. He was going to die in this tin can, and no one would ever know what had become of him. The cell was too short for him to stand without stooping. He put his jacket on the ground and sat on it, folding his long legs up under his knees and hugging them. He didn’t like the idea of his prized leather jacket being soiled with whatever might be on this filthy floor, but better the jacket than his pants.
The metal of his jail rattled, making a hollow thwang. Latches slid back with a loud creak. Quick, think, what to say? What to offer, what to beg for? He had to get out of here. A slot in the door opened, and a shaft of light pierced the blackness. The harsh glare illuminated a shaft of flesh, Gadi’s penis, he assumed. Daoud shifted on the floor until his mouth was in the right place. He said a quick prayer before opening his mouth and taking the prick inside.
He could smell and taste the contempt of the prick’s owner. Once again, he almost gagged. He wondered if the soldier had put his gun on the ground, or if he was even now standing with his hand on the trigger. Daoud sucked and sucked and finally felt the squirt in his mouth. He gave a final lick and pulled away. He hoped the soldier could hear him spit the sperm on the ground. Too late, he considered that Gadi wouldn’t be the one who had to sit in it. It would be the next poor guy who tried to get through the checkpoint. He should have done it in the corner. How much longer would he be here? He needed to get to Adloyada.
The door flew open. “Come on,” Gadi said. Daoud could see no sign in his face of what had just happened. He wondered if it was a nightly occurrence, like drinking coffee. Gadi took his arm, a little less roughly than before, but not gently. He led him to the front of the line of cars and opened the door of a cab.
“Do you have room for one more?” he asked. The cab was full, five adults and two children, but a woman took one of the kids on her lap, and the other passengers good-naturedly shifted around to make room. Gadi waved them through.
Daoud glanced at the two young men sharing the back seat with him. They were nicely dressed for a night out, black slacks and polo shirts. They gave each other a high five. No doubt, they had been anticipating a problem at the checkpoint too. Daoud hugged himself, wondering if the sour smell was coming from the jacket or his own skin, The cab dropped him off at the top of the Mount of Olives. He caught a servees down to Damascus Gate and, from there, walked quickly down HaNevi’im Street and ducked into the small alley called Shushan. When he caught sight of the gray stone oasis, he thrust the memory of Gadi and his moments of panic and humiliation behind him. He opened the door, and a rush of warm air, pungent with beer, wafted to greet him. Mordecai, an elfin, Jewish Israeli with sparse, brown hair, danced over and kissed him on the lips.
“JLo, thank God. You’re on in fifteen minutes.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be ready.”
“You had no problems with the checkpoint?”
Daoud hesitated for one second. His friend’s eyes had already wandered to the bar, where the bartender was pouring vodka into a row of shotglasses.
“Not too bad,” he said.